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Belen Jesuit's Rodriguez plays for his father

Belen Jesuit (Miami) center fielder Joey Rodriguez dives to make a diving catch against Columbus (Miami) in the first game at Marlins Park. Courtesy of Victor Arrieta

It’s not a subject Joey Rodriguez enjoys talking about with anyone, much less a stranger.

He’s different now than he was three years ago, when his father, Joel Rodriguez, was alive. Rodriguez feels he’s had to “man up,” to not succumb to emotion, to not let his mother see him cry.

He’s had well-meaning coaches and friends try to offer guidance or act in some way as a surrogate father figure. But the 18-year-old Rodriguez doesn’t want that, either.

No one can ever replace his father.

“He was the best dad you could ask for – and my best friend, too,” said Rodriguez, a senior center fielder for Belen Jesuit (Miami) and a Wake Forest recruit. “He never missed one of my games. What he did with me was always around baseball, but it was loving, too. It was to teach me the right things.”

Rodriguez lost his father three years ago today on April 5, 2009. Joel suffered a heart attack while swimming at a family get-together. He was 41 and had never had any warning signs of heart disease, according to his widow, Giselys, who had been Joel’s sweetheart since she was 14.

Joey Rodriguez, who used to love boating, swimming and fishing, hasn’t been back on the water since.

Instead, he has focused on baseball and school. He has a 3.5 GPA and wants to study sports medicine at Wake Forest.

Belen coach Jerry Albert said Rodriguez will have a great college career.

“Wake Forest should be as happy as can be to get him,” Albert said. “He’s an intelligent player who watches everything. I think Joey can play at any college in the country, and I think he’ll be a pro.”

A pro baseball career is indeed Rodriguez’s dream and is what still connects him to his father.

It was his dad who gave him a plastic bat and ball for Christmas before he reached age two. It was his dad who built a batting cage in the backyard – with lights – so that Joey and his friends could practice their swings.

It was his dad who coached Joey and his teammates to Pony League World Series championships in 2004 and 2006.

“My dad had played for the Cuban youth national team when he was 10, and he played for a year at Georgia Tech,” Rodriguez said. “Even when I didn’t want to listen, I knew my dad knew what he was talking about.”

A few days after his father’s death, Rodriguez was promoted to the varsity for the first time. The day Joel had surely dreamed of had arrived, but he was no longer there to see it come to fruition.

Rodriguez said he didn’t even know if he could find the dugout without his father, but he summoned strength and courage he didn’t know existed.

Before his junior season at Belen, Rodriguez had hoped to get a scholarship offer from Florida International University so he could be close to his mother and his 7-year-old sister, Genesis.

But Rodriguez, who is 5-foot-7 and 170 pounds, said FIU told him he wasn’t big enough to play for them.

“They clearly told me I was too short,” Rodriguez said. “That put the fire into me.”

As a junior last season, Rodriguez hit .422 with 14 doubles, 4 triples and 30 steals. The fire Rodriguez spoke of shows in his attitude toward the school that spurned him.

“I went out and got an ACC school,” he said, “which might me be a bit better than FIU.”

Wake is looking at Rodriguez as a potential center fielder and/or second baseman, two positions where the Demon Deacons are starting sophomores this season.

Tom Walter, who’s in his third year at Wake Forest, said Rodriguez is the “first true leadoff hitter” he’s recruited at the school.

“We haven’t had anyone like Joey who can play the short game – steal bases, spray the ball around,” Walter said. “He has a great awareness of the strike zone and is a tough out. We’re excited about Joey.”

Rodriguez, who generates surprising power for a player his size due to his fast hands, does not shrink from the big stage. When Belen played Columbus (Miami) to open the Miami Marlins’ new stadium, Rodriguez had the building’s first steal, first diving catch and first run scored.

Albert predicts Wake will want him in center field once they see how well he can track fly balls.

“When you have a kid who can go get it in center field, it’s hard to take him out,” Albert said. “He’s a true burner with a very good arm and gets great reads.”

Rodriguez prefers center field because it’s more of a leadership position. The second baseman, he said, defers to the shortstop, which makes center field a better fit for his personality.

“I’m a go-getter,” he said. “I always want to be on top in my life and in baseball, too.”

Rodriguez, though, makes it clear that he will give it his best at whatever position his coaches want – even if that’s catcher.

He has the utmost respect for Walter, speaking in glowing terms of the coach who donated one of his kidneys to Wake outfielder Kevin Jordan, just days before the start of the 2011 season.

“It will be an honor to play for (Walter),” Rodriguez said. “He has shown incredible heart.”

The same can be said about Rodriguez.